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How Dave Brubeck took jazz behind the Iron Curtain

The pianist, whose centennial is being celebrated this month, was one of the jazz superstars sent to the Soviet bloc at the height of the Cold War

Dave Brubeck in the the TV series 'Stars of Jazz'
Dave Brubeck in the the TV series 'Stars of Jazz'

I rarely listen to music when I’m working — it’s usually too distracting — but right now I’m playing “Jazz Impressions of Eurasia,” a lesser-known album by the Dave Brubeck Quartet. December marks the centennial of Brubeck’s birth, you see, and a flurry of concerts and radio shows has honored his legacy over the past few weeks. Not many of them feature tunes from the Eurasia album, but one had a particular importance both for Brubeck and the audience he first played it for. The song is titled “Dziekuje,” Polish for “thank you.” Brubeck wrote it in early 1958 during a train ride to the Polish city of Poznan, part of a 12-city tour of the country, which was behind the Iron Curtain at the time. The tour was sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

In its heyday — the 1950s and ’60s — Brubeck’s quartet, with the classic lineup of Brubeck on piano, Paul Desmond on alto saxophone, Eugene Wright on bass and Joe Morello on drums, was the second-most-popular jazz act in the world, its fame exceeded only by Louis Armstrong. Its best-known tune, “Take Five,” recorded in 1959, remains the biggest selling jazz single in history. Brubeck experimented brilliantly with unorthodox time signatures, composed a handful of jazz classics and developed a sound that was instantly recognizable. On the East Coast, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were inventing bebop; on the West Coast, Brubeck and Desmond were creating another kind of jazz, easier on the ear but no less rigorous, which the critics called “cool jazz” (a description Brubeck never liked).

At the height of the Cold War, President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles decided it would be a good idea to send jazz musicians to the Soviet bloc. Given the Dave Brubeck Quartet’s widespread popularity, there was never any doubt that it would be among the groups the government would solicit for one of the tours.

For the first decade or so after the World War II, only American symphony orchestras and classical musicians were invited behind the Iron Curtain. Jazz was forbidden; the Soviets portrayed it as decadent, the product of a corrupt capitalist system. The one place where Eastern Europeans could hear jazz was on the Voice of America, where Willis Conover hosted a popular music show. “Jazz,” Conover used to tell his audience, “guarantees each musician absolute freedom within a framework of cooperation.” Which, of course, is exactly why the Kremlin hated it.

By the late 1950s, however, several Soviet bloc countries, including Poland, had lowered their animus toward jazz. It still wasn’t easy to get jazz recordings, but it wasn’t impossible, either. In Poland, underground jazz clubs had opened with little interference from the authorities. The U.S. government decided to stop sponsoring symphony orchestras — which, after all, played European music back to Europeans — and focus instead on jazz. Sending jazz musicians behind the Iron Curtain would be a way of winning hearts and minds by showing off this exciting American music.  

There was a second reason the Eisenhower administration wanted to get jazz musicians behind the Iron Curtain. Most of the groups it sponsored — including Duke Ellington’s big band, and combos led by Louis Armstrong and Benny Goodman, as well the Dave Brubeck Quartet — were integrated. It was a time of enormous racial strife in the U.S.; just months before Brubeck left for Poland, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas defied the federal government by using the National Guard to keep nine Black students from entering the all-white Central High School in Little Rock. Racism in the U.S. was a propaganda talking point for the Soviets. Showing integrated jazz groups would help “promote an image of America working hard to right the divisions of racism,” according to Philip Clark, Brubeck’s biographer.

The bitter irony that they were being served up as examples of racial harmony was hardly lost on the Black musicians who went on the government-sponsored tours. It wasn’t lost on Brubeck, either. His bass player, Eugene Wright, was Black, and after Wright joined the quartet, many Southern venues canceled concerts. Indeed, the night before the group left for Poland, as they were preparing to go onstage for a concert at East Carolina College in Greenville, North Carolina, the dean refused to let the quartet play when he realized that it had a Black musician. (He relented when he heard the students in the audience stomping their feet and shouting Wright’s name.)

Once he got to Poland, however, Brubeck found himself overwhelmed by the reaction to the quartet’s performances — and by what he learned about the Soviet bloc country. “You can’t believe how well we were received,” he told an interviewer in 2008, four years before he died. “They wrote things like we were heaven-sent to them.” Every concert was sold out, and every tune was greeted with rapturous applause.

After the concerts, Brubeck and the other band members would visit the underground jazz clubs, where they would talk and play for hours. In that same 2008 interview, Brubeck explained how someone showed him an X-ray plate. Somehow, people had figured out how to use the plates to capture recordings, which would then be passed around from one jazz fan to the next. He also gained a powerful understanding of how people in Eastern Europe associated jazz with freedom. His concerts emboldened Polish musicians, who said they would use their talent to take on communism. And it wasn’t just jazz musicians — sculptors and poets and other artists often told Brubeck the same thing.

“They understood what they should be striving for after they saw what we were doing,” Brubeck later said. He added, “We didn’t understand how we could be that important.”

When the quartet played in Gdansk, Brubeck was invited to dinner at the home of a local musician. During the evening, the musician began playing pieces by one of Poland’s greatest musical heroes, Frederic Chopin. “Brubeck was captivated by the sophistication and grandeur of Chopin’s harmonic thinking and by how that ambition saturated the keyboard with brilliant musical invention,” Clark wrote.

A few days later, when the quartet played in Lodz, Brubeck visited a nearby Chopin museum. It was soon after that visit that he wrote “Dziekuje” — his way of saying thank you to the Polish people for the enthusiasm they had shown for his music and their warm hospitality.

When he played the piece for the first time in Warsaw, the audience initially reacted with dead silence. “I thought I had insulted the audience by linking the memory of Chopin to jazz,” Brubeck wrote in the liner notes to “Jazz Impressions of Eurasia.” But then the cheering began, and it didn’t stop. “Brubeck had refracted something of Polish culture through his own experience … which moved them profoundly,” Clark wrote.

For the rest of his life, Brubeck would describe the quartet’s trip behind the Iron Curtain as one of the highlights of his career. He did come away believing that his integrated group — “in perfect creative accord” — helped create a counter-narrative to the Soviet belief that all Americans were racist. It also expanded the way he thought about the power of jazz.

“I am convinced,” he wrote in the New York Times magazine after returning from the tour, “that the effect of jazz on people is more profound than our serious music.” Brubeck continued: “The form and notes of a symphony are fixed … but jazz is another matter. Musically, by its very nature, it is the most creative, freest and most democratic form of expression I know.”

Most of all, Brubeck would forever remember how the Dave Brubeck Quartet had moved Polish audiences — and how the Poles he met had moved him.

“The last night, they threw a party for us at one of the underground clubs,” he recalled decades later. The president of the club gave a toast. He said, ‘You are going home tomorrow. I want you to know that we Poles love freedom as much you Americans.’”

All around the world, jazz equaled freedom. That’s what Brubeck learned most of all.

Joe Nocera is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business.

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